Luckily for me, my friend M. flew in from Tokyo last week, right before I melt my brain interpreting for Natsume Ono at TCAF this weekend (you should come! Say hi!), and with her came the latest from Ono (released only three short weeks ago!). Which lets me get a sense of the direction of her work before I accompany her to press interviews and fan mobbings. And I have to say, I really wish the fans would be mobbing her about this.
Just a quick look at the cover will tell you that she has something different in store for her readers with Nigero Otoko: almost entirely black with the grey contours of trees pushing out of the gloom, a shadowed man downcast in front. This striking image immediately yanked me away from everything else I’m reading, insisting that this was the book to read now.
Her style is looser in this story, a sketchbooky thing that made me think of the dirtier lines of est em’s earlier work, like Seduce Me After the Show. I’m used to seeing more controlled, careful lines in Ono’s work. There’s a kind of cleanness to the images in books like Not Simple and even House of Fives Leaves, although that series is clearly headed in the direction of this sketchier style. The way this evolution plays out in Nigeru Otoko had me flipping back pages over and over to let my eyes follow the loose outlines in a different way, draw something new from the images and the words accompanying them.
The words don’t let down either. The story feels like a fairytale, a man and a bear living deep in the woods together away from the world. And Ono frames it as a fairytale, starting the book with a young woman telling two young girls about a bear in the woods that only children can see. If you spend the day with the bear and make it out of the forest, you can become whatever you want. This dialogue is given to us in panels with the girls interspersed with panels of the woman heading into the woods herself, broken-hearted from a failed affair.
The man and the bear and how each of them ended up there is revealed slowly and never fully, so that even by the end, when you know the basics of what happened, there is still space for wondering, musing, daydreaming. The man and the bear are each tragic in their own ways, but it’s not all bleak. In fact, even with the downward charged images, Ono finds a way to squeeze in moments of light and even hope.
And a lot of extraneous details get shoved aside for some stunning panels: the full page of nothing but the tops of black umbrellas, the perfect start to a chapter focused on a funeral and other loss (and which reminded me of the aerial view of the marching soldiers in their broad hats at the beginning of Tsura Tsura Waraji, but pared down to perfection); the wide eyes of the young woman surrounded by empty space, when she first comes across the bear; a young man lost in the forest and in life outlined against the outlines of the trees. I could just flip through this book for days. But the intriguing dreamlike story tying the sketched and evocative images together makes me want to do more than flip. This is one book I’ll be coming back to. And if this is where the evolution of Ono’s style has taken her, I’m already impatient for her next book.